Through the character of Santiago, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho encourages his readers to follow their dreams, and find and fulfill their life’s purpose in his novel The Alchemist. The immense popularity of the book shows how well that message has resonated with readers around the world. It is regularly included in recommended reading lists that aim at motivating people and imparting life lessons.
The Alchemist follows a Spanish shepherd boy, Santiago, on his journey from the hills of Andalucia in the south of Spain to the pyramids of Egypt on a quest to fulfill what is described as his “Personal Legend”. This journey is prompted by a dream he sees multiple times in which a child tells him that he will find hidden treasure in Egypt. He overcomes several obstacles, big and small, as well as internal and external, to achieve his goal. And along the way Santiago encounters a range of people who are distinct from each other, with varied values and hailing from different cultures, speaking different languages.
The Value of Diversity
While much has been said and written about the book’s overt message of persistence and following one’s dreams, not as much attention has been directed at the significance of the diversity on display in The Alchemist. Shortly after he leaves his native Andalucia, Santiago begins to have interactions with characters he doesn’t share a language with. Once he reaches his expected final destination, – Egypt – he is struck by the realization that the treasure he is seeking is not there but back in Andalucia, in a field he frequently herds his sheep to. The plot at this point feels circular and maybe even pointless to some – to travel across the sea and far beyond, only to come back to the starting point. The book’s message remains intact, but some readers may feel a little cheated until the idea of culture is taken into consideration as well.
Framing The Alchemist along the lines of one of the eminently quotable Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quotes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” gives the other, previously secondary or purely supporting characters a new significance. When re-examining Santiago’s trek across the sea, through new and unfamiliar cities and finally through the desert, and the diversity he encounters along the way, another message is revealed. It speaks of the importance of interacting with a wide range of cultures. Each character Santiago encountered along his way encouraged, pushed, and inspired him in their own way to forge ahead and finish his quest.
The candy seller shows Santiago the sense of happiness and contentment he will experience if and when he fulfills his Personal Legend. The crystal merchant he works for in Tangiers shares his own experience of having failed to do so, pushing Santiago to continue on his journey just when he is pondering giving it up. The merchant does this even though it might not be good for his own business which flourished upon the shepherd boy’s arrival. The camel herder guiding the caravan across the Sahara not only helps Santiago to get to his destination physically but also teaches him several important lessons in wisdom. His fellow traveler, the Englishman, too demonstrates to him the importance of being open to his surroundings and the people he meets by being the exact opposite and by being bitterly disappointed at the end of his journey. Santiago even meets the love of his life, Fatima, on his journey, who sacrifices much so that he can continue. The treasure refers not only to the gold Santiago digs up but also includes all the valuable wisdom he gathers upon his journey.
Through the character of Santiago and his journey, Coelho is demonstrating to his readers a peaceful and fruitful multicultural coexistence. Even though he is in strange lands among strange people, he is open-minded. He does not throw up barriers to shield himself as the Englishman does. Instead, he immerses himself in the local cultures he encounters and learns from them. This is a message that is critical in today’s world of heightened cultural division and prejudices, and the discrimination and violence that flows from it. As much as people need to be empowered to look inward and find and realize their personal purpose, they also need to be able to see and imbibe the best from people around them, especially those who look, sound and have had experiences very different from their own.
The Alchemist also plays with the prevalent notion of language. Speaking different languages or not understanding one you are not familiar with, is seen as a solid barrier to communication surmounted only by going through the lengthy and time-consuming process of learning it.
In the book, language seems to be more of an artificial and superficial barrier. Santiago’s use of language, on the other hand, is a lot more fluid. He seems to be able to communicate effectively without the benefit of knowing the other person’s language. This is revealed early on when he notices that he perfectly understands the needs of the flock of sheep he herds. In fact, the only time he adheres to behavior that is regarded as the norm in the face of a foreign language, he is cheated. Upon first arriving at a land where Arabic – a language completely foreign to him – is spoken, he meets a person who speaks his native tongue at a bar. Unable to understand the Arab bar owner who is warning him against the Spanish-speaking thief, Santiago ignores him and winds up being robbed. While dejected at first, he decides to take this incident in his stride and regard it as a lesson. And therein lies a lesson for the reader as well: sharing a common language may make communication simpler, but it doesn’t always make it better. Dismissing those whom you don’t immediately understand might be a mistake.
These deeper lessons elevate the overall message of The Alchemist. It not only directs readers to fulfill their destinies, but it also delivers another powerful life lesson. It shows how open-mindedness and coexistence can be tools in every person’s journey. Rather than restricting ourselves to experiences and cultures that we are familiar with, it enjoins us to explore, appreciate and learn from that which is new to us.